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TUF 20 and beyond: Is UFC's new strawweight division already more popular than women’s bantamweight?

Women's mixed martial arts (MMA) has exploded in popularity thanks in large part to UFC champion Ronda Rousey. With the success of the bantamweight division, UFC opted to add the 115-pound weight class this year, crowning a champion with The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20. With Rousey's contenders dwindling, and a stacked 115-pound division ready to prove its worth, ponders whether or not the strawweights have the potential to be one of UFC's most popular divisions.

Esther Lin

Women's mixed martial arts (MMA) exploded onto the scene just as soon as UFC women's bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey entered the fold from Strikeforce back in February 2013, defeating Liz Carmouche via first-round armbar at UFC 157 in the first-ever women's bout in UFC history.

Since then, we have seen a plethora of challengers attempt to defeat the former Olympian, but Rousey finished every single one of them in devastating fashion.

With Rousey dominating inside the Octagon, and her popularity growing outside of it, the women's bantamweight division has become sort of a wasteland of contenders with Rousey unable to find a suitable challenger that would provide for an epic rivalry and fight.

Although bitter rival Miesha Tate provided an exciting storyline (and intriguing fight) for the division and WMMA as a whole near the end of 2013, this year has been banal, at best, for the 135-pound division.

In attempt to spice things up in a division dominated by its champion, UFC and Rousey attempted to lure in Gina Carano, a former WMMA star who has long since left the sport for a career in acting. Although Rousey and UFC would have liked you to believe that Carano is a viable threat, the truth is that Carano would have been nothing more than a stepping stone to an easy payday for the champion.

Ultimately, Rousey's dominance has actually hurt the division in a way UFC likely did not see coming. With Ronda obliterating legitimate contenders in Sara McMann and Alexis Davis, she has made it difficult for UFC to create other stars in WMMA, therefore impeding the growth of the division altogether.

Not only is Rousey the lone star nearly two years after the division's Octagon debut, but her dominance has left very few viable challengers to contend for the title. The handful of contenders left at this point still need a marquee win or two in order to sell a pay-per-view (PPV) fight against Rousey.

The potential future contenders are Bethe Correia, Jessica Eye, Sarah Kaufman, and the highly-touted Holly Holm, who has yet to make her Octagon debut (because of this). While most pundits and fans would expect Rousey to win each and every one of those fights, that is where the division stands going into 2015.

The most alluring fight both inside and outside of the Octagon is of course a bout against Invicta featherweight champion Cris Cyborg, but until she earns a bantamweight victory and proves she can make the weight, we won't see her in UFC, no matter how much trash talk they spew at each other.

With a lack of star power and contenders in the 135-pound weight class, UFC has opted to add in yet another women's division, and it looks as if it has the potential to be arguably the most exciting and competitive division in UFC today.

With The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20 still currently airing, UFC has brought in seven additional women's strawweights not currently on the show to compete prior to the champion being crowned at the December finale. The two most noteworthy women not included in the show are Paige VanZant and Claudia Gadelha.

Both of the aforementioned women looked outstanding in their respective UFC debuts, proving to be early contenders and stars in what will be an incredibly competitive division come December.

Gadelha was actually set to fight former Invicta strawweight champion and current TUF 20 semifinalist Carla Esparza on multiple separate occasions, but injuries and sickness derailed her opportunity to fight for the belt before the division was folded into UFC and TUF show.

With both Gadelha and VanZant getting major notoriety after their respective UFC debuts, and TUF 20 show providing an intriguing angle that has yet to be seen in UFC history, it begs the question whether or not the popularity of the 115-pound women already outweighs that of the bantamweights.

Are fans more drawn to a dominant champion, or to a fluid and competitive division?

Just take a gander at the current state of the welterweight division. Once dominated by longtime champion Georges St-Pierre, the division has since been one of the most exciting and competitive regarding the number of top contenders since St-Pierre vacated his title in 2013.

While it remains to be seen who will become champion in the 115-pound division, most pundits would agree the title will likely change hands multiple times over the next few years as the division grows and the competition stiffens. Then again, Dana White said prior to TUF 20 airing that one of the contestants could be the next Ronda Rousey, so maybe we have another dominant champion on our hands.

While Rousey certainly has her hands full against Cat Zingano at UFC 184 in February, her options afterward are quite limited. If the Cyborg fight does not materialize, where does Rousey, and the women's bantamweight division, go with a win over "Alpha?"

On the other hand, the women's strawweight champion will have a bevy of contenders vying for a shot at the newly-minted champ, and you can expect the top 15 to be far more stacked than that of the 135-pound weight class.

My pick to win the show is still Rose Namajunas, but it won't be an easy task to hold off Carla Esparza, Joanne Calderwood, or even Tecia Torres. And with Randa Markos' sensational run thus far, the depth of the division is truly showing its face.

With marketable stars in VanZant, and true powerhouses in Namajunas and Esparza, the 115-pound division could become one the most exciting in UFC today.

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